While China has long censored and regulated its domestic Internet, in recent years it has advanced a concept of “cyber sovereignty” that seeks in part to upend the current system of online governance.
“Under the guise of sovereignty and security, the Chinese authorities are trying to rewrite the rules of the Internet so censorship and surveillance become the norm everywhere. This is an all-out assault on Internet freedoms,” said Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International.
A draft Chinese cyber security law, revealed earlier this year, will codify currently scattered Internet censorship rules and expand authorities’ abilities to, among other things, completely cut off Internet access in the name of “national security.”
Speaking to reporters last week, the head of the Cyberspace Administration of China, Lu Wei said that China does not censor the Internet, it regulates it.
“If we really censor the Internet, how come our Internet user population and their reliance on the Internet keep growing?
“Let me tell you, China has four million websites, nearly 700 million Internet users, 1.2 billion mobile phone users as well as 600 million WeChat and Weibo users. Every day they post 30 billion messages. It’s simply impossible for any country or organization to censor 30 billion messages.”
But he added: “Not censoring doesn’t mean there is no bottom line: If you touch that line and violate the law, you will be held responsible.”
Many observers have pointed to the irony of holding an “Internet conference” in China, last year attendees of the Wuzhen forum were given access to Facebook and Twitter, among other blocked services.
New online world order
Lu has previously advanced a “multilateral” approach to global Internet governance that focuses on “the state making the rules based on the idea of the sovereignty of the nation-state representing its citizens.”
In his keynote speech on Wednesday, Xi reiterated this idea, saying that countries should work together to “build an Internet governance system to promote equity and justice.”
“International cyberspace governance should promote a multilateral approach,” he said.
The end goal of this tactic is, according to Franz-Stefan Gady of the East West Institute, to “gain de jure international support for China’s de facto Internet censorship policies.”
Beijing has long emphasized a need for “a new global Internet governance system,” said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.
“China wants to legitimize its vision of a bordered Internet, an international Internet rather than a global one,” where each country is able to set its own rules and restrictions.
Beijing has also sought the support from multinational Internet companies for cyber sovereignty. In September, ahead of Xi’s state visit to Washington, officials called on several American tech firms to sign a document promising not to harm Chinese national security or consumer rights.
“Tech companies must not turn a blind eye to such repression or give credence to any notion of Internet sovereignty that is an attack on the rights to freedom of expression or privacy,” said Amnesty’s Rife.
“China is a huge market, and it knows it,” said Bandurski.
“They want to use this to try and encourage compliance or support for the idea (of Internet sovereignty).”